Wisconsin's Right-to-Work Bill Heads to Scott Walker

In a powerful illustration of the state's increasingly polarized politics, the Wisconsin Assembly passed so-called right-to-work legislation Friday on a strictly party-line vote, with two Republicans who had previously sided with unions now lining up against them.

By Mary Spicuzza, Jason Stein and Patrick Marley

In a powerful illustration of the state's increasingly polarized politics, the Wisconsin Assembly passed so-called right-to-work legislation Friday on a strictly party-line vote, with two Republicans who had previously sided with unions now lining up against them.

In a sleep-starved roll call taken after 24 nearly continuous hours of debate, all 62 Republicans on hand voted for the labor measure and all 35 Democrats voted against. Among the lawmakers were two Republicans, Travis Tranel of Cuba City and Lee Nerison of Westby, who voted for the latest union proposal after voting against Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10 law in 2011 repealing most collective bargaining for public workers.

The fast-moving measure, which bans labor contracts requiring workers to pay union fees, now heads to the desk of the Republican governor and 2016 hopeful.

"This freedom-to-work legislation will give workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union, and employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin. Thanks to the members of the Legislature for their work on this bill, and I look forward to signing it into law on Monday," Walker said.

In all, five Republicans in the Legislature, one in the Senate and four in the Assembly, voted against Act 10 in 2011. This year, only one Republican in the Senate -- former International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member Sen. Jerry Petrowski of Marathon -- and no one in the Assembly voted against the right-to-work bill, which in 2011 at least was considered the more controversial of the two measures because it deals with private-sector rather than public-sector unions.

In an effort that recalled their unsuccessful 61-hour stand against Act 10, Democrats in the house ignored certain defeat and argued overnight against a measure they call an attack on workers.

"Nobody is forced to join a union," state Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) said after the bill passed. "I would have gone on for another 24 hours if it would have made a difference."

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) added,"We're talking about 70 years of labor peace. We wanted to give it every ounce of energy we did."

But Republicans insisted the bill was about freedom for workers and would help businesses in the state.

"We're fighting for every worker in the state to have their own personal liberty," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said. "Worker freedom. Individual choice. Getting to make your own way in life."

As Walker explores a likely presidential bid outside of Wisconsin, the governor has cited the right-to-work bill as another example of Republican leadership in the state, which has seen a steady stream of conservative legislation since 2011. But in talking about the measure on Thursday and again after Friday's vote, Vos said that Walker had consistently said in meetings with lawmakers in recent months that the bill was not a priority.

Last month, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said he would push the bill through his house, prompting Walker to say for the first time that he would sign the legislation.

Progress on the bill was slow throughout the overnight session, as sniping continued hour after hour.

The legislation upends more than a half century of labor law in Wisconsin.

It does so by prohibiting the longtime practice of contracts being signed between businesses and unions requiring private-sector workers to pay labor fees. The federal Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 allowed states to pass such legislation -- one of the few areas where states can affect private-sector unions. So far, 24 other states have passed right-to-work.

Under federal law, unions are required to represent everyone in a work unit, even those who don't belong to the union.

Supporters say workers should get to decide whether to pay their own money toward unions and argue having such a law in place would help lure businesses to Wisconsin. Opponents say unions and employers should be able to reach contracts as they see fit and that it's reasonable to require all employees to pay their share of the cost of representing them.

"I chose to stand on the side of freedom," said Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac)

Democrats contended the measure would pit workers against their bosses and workers against each other.

"We are destroying labor peace in Wisconsin," said Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee).

The Assembly officially convened at 9 a.m. Thursday and under an agreement between the two parties would go a full 24 hours from then. Debate on a related labor issue began shortly before 11 a.m. Thursday and debate on the bill itself began later that afternoon.

All-night sessions used to be common in the Assembly but were dramatically scaled back two years ago when Vos began working out debate limits with Democrats. Democrats pushed for the longer-than-usual debate time in this case because they see the legislation as a blow to workers.

The labor fight comes four years after Walker advanced his own Act 10 law amid massive protests of tens of thousands of demonstrators in Madison. That prompted a wave of recall elections, making Walker the first governor in U.S. history to survive such an attempt in 2012.

On Thursday afternoon several hundred protesters gathered on the Capitol square and on Thursday night, a small crowd of protesters milled outside the Assembly chamber holding signs and occasionally singing and chanting. Earlier, two people were arrested for shouting profanities and refusing to stop, according to a spokesman for the Capitol Police.

(c)2015 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.